David Bowie left his capsule last night, at the age of 69, and is now floating in a most peculiar way. “Planet Earth is blue,” he told us in ’69, on “Space Oddity,” his first of many indelible songs, “and there’s nothing I can do.”
Born and raised in Brixton, South London, Bowie’s voracious musical appetite made him a citizen of the world. “When I was a child, the first records that influenced me were Ray Charles, Little Richard, Stravinsky,” the Artist Formerly Known As Ziggy Stardust told his wife Iman in a dialog published in the November 1995 issue of VIBE magazine. “I guess that set the pattern.”
That pattern would endure throughout a lifetime of creative experimentation—moving freely and masterfully amongst styles as diverse as glam rock, R&B, new wave, reggae, electronica, dance pop, and jazz fusion, effortlessly breaking boundaries of race and gender along the way. An accomplished actor, painter, and sculptor, Bowie released his 25th and final album, the project Blackstar (not to be confused with Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s project of the same name), 48 hours or so before his death. Producer Tony Visconti said that Bowie’s final album was inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. “We loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record,” Visconti told Rolling Stone. “He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
This morning Kanye West tweeted that Bowie was “one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.” His impact on hip-hop went far beyond being sampled for Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”—a record whose profits helped make Death Row Records possible—and Diddy and Mase’s “Been Around the World,” which sampled Bowie’s Nile Rogers-produced master blaster “Let’s Dance.”
Like Sinatra before him, Bowie was a pioneer in breaking down musical apartheid, touring with a multiracial band and allowing black musicians to get their shine. “When I first toured the states, I made a pilgrimage to the Apollo,” he recalled back in 1995. “I must have looked like some kind of alien with those brilliant patterned suits with space shoulders, fire red hair, no eyebrows, stacked boots, and makeup for days. This was around ’73, and I became a sort of regular there.”
Bowie was a huge fan of what he called “soul music,” and he recorded his first U.S. hits, the No. 1 single “Fame” and the incomparable “Young Americans” with a band that included David Sanborn on sax, Dennis Davis—who would go on to play with Stevie Wonder—on drums, and Robin Clark, Ava Cherry, and Luther Vandross on vocals. “Seriously, Luther doing backup,” Bowie said. “I think it might have been his first real time out in big 10,000-seater events…. Luther was already writing some wonderful songs, and we could give him a 30-minute spot of his own before our show so he could work them up a bit. I knew he was gonna break through.” In 1983 Bowie held MTV's feet to the fire for its blackout on black artists.
Back in ’95 Bowie spoke excitedly about “a real breakdown of absolutes” and “the right to move between one medium and another.” This was a right he exercised in abundance, literally until his death. More than any one song that very creative freedom may be his greatest legacy. “As fast as we’re moving away from a Eurocentric world view, so we’re withdrawing from the craft-pivotal ideas of the traditional,” he told Iman in that VIBE story. “Whatever it takes to say it, do it. We’ll see a lot more artists moving from one sphere to another and back to explore the nature of expression.”
Bowie’s penultimate music video, the utterly haunting title track from “Blackstar,” opens with a motionless astronaut, slumped on the ground as if he’d fallen all the way to Earth. Despite the smiley face pinned to his spacesuit, the image is a foreboding one—the spaceman’s face obscured by his helmet, as a young girl approaches tentatively, as if to ask, “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” The playfully ghoulish imagery that follows—crucifixions, cryptic rituals, bejeweled skulls—will take time to unpack. The song itself is much more straightforward, addressing Bowie’s impending death from liver cancer without flinching.
Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside.
As I pen this obituary, the song “Lazarus" plays in my headphones. For those who missed their Sunday lessons, Lazarus of Bethany was a friend and follower of Jesus whom Christ brought back to life in the 11th chapter of the Gospel According to John. Four days after the man’s death Jesus ordered his tomb opened and said, “Lazarus, come out,” whereupon Lazarus emerged, his hands, feet, and face still wrapped in cloth. This miracle marked the beginning of the end for Jesus, whose enemies were so upset that they begin plotting to kill him.
In the video for “Lazarus” Bowie appears emaciated, clutching the blanket on a hospital bed, ace bandages covering his eyes with metallic black grommets where his pupils should be. Still he sees everything with brutal clarity.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen…. I’ve got nothing left to lose.” What better coda to this remarkable life than a musical resurrection? One imagines him planning the rollout for this final release, transubstantiating the last shreds of his life into art. The song ends defiantly, as befits a man who always understood Hippocrates’ aphorism: Ars longa, vita brevis.
Oh, I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I'll be free
Ain't that just like me?